The first thing most seattleites think about upon hearing the phrase “glass art” is Dale Chihuly. And with good reason; the history of Northwest glass has Chihuly’s name woven throughout, from its earliest beginnings to right now, as the museum honoring his work is poised to open at Seattle Center.
But Chihuly would likely be the first to say that our regional history is many faceted, with diverse influences twining tightly together and resulting in Seattle’s current status as the epicenter of American glass art. In fact, the history of Northwest glass art reflects the art of glassblowing itself: built on mentorship, teamwork and a wildly experimental spirit.
The meteoric rise of Seattle glass art is especially noteworthy because, compared to other American art forms, so-called studio glass (as distinguished from glass made in a factory) hasn’t been around long. Fifty years ago, what we currently know as glass art didn’t exist anywhere in America. Decorative glass was in production, but only in factory settings, such as Steuben Glass Works and Tiffany Studios, on the East Coast. Then along came Harvey Littleton, a ceramics professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who wanted to take glassmaking out of the factories and into the studios of artisans. He offered two experimental glass workshops in 1962, and the following year started the first-ever collegiate glass program in America, at the UW-Madison.
About this same time, Tacoma-born Dale Chihuly was attending the other UW (University of Washington), studying interior design and fiddling around with fusing and melting glass. By 1963, he had figured out how to weave glass into tapestries, and in 1966, Chihuly headed to the UW-Madison to study glassblowing under Littleton. But he wasn’t the Northwest’s only notable artist to study under Littleton. Fritz Dreisbach, currently based on Whidbey Island, earned his M.F.A. from the UW-Madison in 1967 and came to be known as the “Johnny Appleseed of glass,” thanks to his cofounding of the nonprofit Glass Art Society (GAS) in 1971. Pamela Koss, executive director of GAS (which now has an international membership of 2,700), says in those early days, the members had “a huge amount of freedom, creativity and naïveté.” The tone was “Let’s try this!” Koss says, “but it was a new frontier. They needed their own place to trade information, such as how to make their own glassblowing tools and glass colors.” The same year that GAS was founded, Chihuly opened a physical place where glass artists could share ideas and techniques.
After earning an M.F.A. in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1968, Chihuly studied in Venice with Italian glass masters on the island of Murano (the birthplace of glass art). Upon his return, he taught at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, then founded RISD’s glass program in 1969 (where he taught acclaimed Northwest glass artists Flora Mace and Benjamin Moore, among others). But he dreamed of setting up a school similar to Haystack—a nature retreat where artists could devote their attention solely to glass. He convinced Seattle art patrons John Hauberg and Anne Gould Hauberg, who owned a tree farm in Stanwood, WA, to let him hold a summer workshop on their land. That first workshop in 1971 spawnedPilchuck Glass School, now the premier glassblowing school in the nation, considered largely responsible for Seattle’s reputation as a hotbed of glass art.
Benjamin Moore, who opened his own studio in the International District in 1985, describes his first summer at Pilchuck in 1974 as an artistic Wild West. “The infancy of the school was rough and woolly,” he recalls. The teachers that year included Chihuly and Fritz Dreisbach, but Moore says facilities were limited. “We had all our meals in an army cook tent, and there was another tent for slide lectures.” Joey Kirkpatrick, who met artistic partner Flora Mace at Pilchuck in 1979, concurs. “We honestly sort of had to make it up as we went along,” she says. “Tools weren’t readily available for personalizing each of our artistic expressions, so many times we had to invent and fabricate our own.” Kirkpatrick and Mace became frequent collaborators with Chihuly—and remain so to this day.
Despite—or perhaps because of—these Paleolithic conditions, Pilchuck swiftly gained its reputation as a mecca for glassblowers. “Dale is a master of bringing people together around an idea,” says Koss. “He created a whole energy around glass.” Moore agrees, adding, “Dale being Dale, he was connecting with artists from rich glass traditions from around the world.” After doing his own stint in Italy, Moore invited superstars Checco Ongaroand Lino Tagliapietra to teach at Pilchuck—a coup, because up to this point Venetian glassblowers had preferred to keep their techniques in house.
“It became an open-source aesthetic,” explains current Pilchuck executive director Jim Baker. By nature, glassblowing requires teamwork (unlike ceramics or painting), but the generous spirit the school embraced was special. Collaborative glassmaking became known as “the Pilchuck way,” says Baker, who adds that also integral to Pilchuck’s success was an early commitment to freedom of expression. “Pilchuck immediately threw people into experimental mode.”
It was this spirit that drew Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner to Pilchuck in 1983. Trained in drawing and painting, Ruffner enjoyed Pilchuck so much, she ended up teaching there from 1984 to 1991. “What appealed to me about glass were the plentiful unexplored possibilities,” she says. Ruffner forged her own way, earning national renown for her lampworking (using a torch and tools to manipulate molten glass, rather than a blowpipe).
The Pilchuck ripple effect cannot be overstated. Early participants such as glass legend William Morris (who first attended in 1978) mentored countless students, including Rik Allen. Moore mentored Seattle glass luminaries Preston Singletary and Dante Marioni, both of whom were Pilchuck students in the early 1980s and went on to teach the next generation of glassmakers.
“Students come from around the world to this magical place, the beautiful Northwest,” Moore says, “and have a life-changing experience, so they stick around. It’s built an incredible community.” Thanks to that, glass institutions and studios have flourished, not least of all Pratt Fine Arts Center, which opened in Seattle in 1976 with glassblowing classes and a hot shop. By the early 1990s, the Northwest had become so well known as a glass haven, talk of a glass museum began to burble. In 2002, the Tacoma Museum of Glass opened its doors—its Bridge of Glass sparkling with Chihuly’s work—and continues to serve as an invaluable resource for local glass artists working in the hot shop.
Today’s glass artists no longer have to contend with primitive toolmaking; instead, they must struggle with how to take glass to the next level. As Baker puts it, “In the 1960s, when the art form was just developing, people would ask, ‘How did you make that?’ Now people ask, ‘What are you trying to say?’”
It’s something Mark Zirpel, a multidisciplinary artist, Pilchuck teacher and the first Dale Chihuly Endowed Chair in Glass at the UW, impresses upon his students in the glass program (added to the UW’s ceramics and sculpture M.F.A. in 2008). “Our program is designed to encourage students to push at the edges of what has been done and develop new ways of using glass in the service of their ideas.” The imaginative results—including glass employed in “video, kinetics, biology and optics”—suggest that Seattle won’t soon be unseated from its glass throne.
PHOTO CREDIT: RUSSELL JOHNSON